By Meg Elison
March 28th, 2020
The first week of shelter in place, I didn’t see anyone that I don’t live with. I’m better off than most folks (or worse, depending on how you look at it) because I live with a partner and a gaggle of roommates in a communal house in West Oakland. We are too many and our space is too small, but we have a big kitchen and we do our own laundry and we look after one another. Also I never have to worry about someone receiving my packages for me.
For that first week, the time at home felt like the days between Christmas and New Years. I cooked comfort food (cottage pie, a whole roast chicken, one of my roommates baked his own bread) and the days lost all meaning. One flowed into the next, with tasks coming in at odd hours and a terrible quiet around the neighborhood. A friend joked that she was going to put her tree back up and it made a funny sort of sense. At least then we would feel festive rather than marooned. I didn’t do it, because my sense of surreality was already so deep. A Christmas tree in March was only going to make that worse.
Second week came and my neighbors started to gather in the driveway. Six feet apart from each other, we went through the basics. Are you folks doing okay? Is anybody sick? The old man next door, he lives alone. All of us keeping an eye on him, and on the block. Do you need anything? Supplies passed from house to house; I have too many tampons, they have too much rice. Packages left on the porch without notes and without accounting.
That second week seemed to go on for a year, and got stranger by the day. Delivery drivers pulled slowly past the houses, eyes narrowed above a mask to read the numbers on the curb. A young man on a rented scooter whipped by, his nitrile gloves a shocking blue. I saw masks on people’s faces still caked in playa dust from last summer at Burning Man, still smelling of tear gas from the last time they were worn in protest. Nowhere but Oakland would I see a Ziploc bag of ten illicit menthols slipped into a mailbox by a woman in a fur-trimmed cape.
But at the two-week mark, everything got real. With the whole state under an order to shelter in place, the layoffs came down. A fundraiser every day: one on the down low to get a very proud neighbor’s car out of impound, and the very next day a rent fund for a trans woman who was let go from a childcare job. All of us passing the plate: who needs $20? Who needs a smoke? Who won’t make it to the first of the month? Who’s out of toilet paper? Threads that were loose like an afghan drew tight like a wool cloak. One day I realized that I finally knew everybody’s name on my block. I’ve lived here for ten years.
On Tuesday, one of the men who lives across the street came over. By instinct, I went to close the distance between us. I’m a naturally friendly person, a hugger and a hand-shaker, a flirt at any distance. I have not yet grown used to people backing up when I speak to them. I know this neighbor by the boom of his voice. He’s a sports fan and he smokes on his porch.
The kids who live above me were sitting on their stairs, and the man across the street held to the edge of the driveway as if it were a boundary he could not cross.
I’ve got passes, he said. You know I work for the highway department? They gave me fifty passes for my crew. They allow you to be out of the house, in case we go into quarantine. To go to the store. Or the doctor. Do you want one?
Just inside my door, on the secretary where we sort our mail, was my partner’s ID card. He’s a city librarian, and on the back side is his identification as an emergency/disaster worker. It allows him the same freedom. We’ve had it all this time and I’ve never thought about it.
The kids upstairs accepted a pass. He put it into their mailbox and backed away, his hands raised.
He told them not to accept any test or vaccine the government might offer in the coming months.
You know what that is, right? He looked up at them from under his raised eyebrows. You know what they do to people like you and me. Could be anything. Could be a test. Could be infecting us on purpose, to thin the population in certain places.
Places like Oakland.
Paranoia. But is it really, given our history? Most of my neighbors are Black and their history belongs to them. I can’t tell him that his instinct is wrong.
The driveway, the five-pointed star of us all in our separate corners, goes silent. This is a terrible time to infect your neighbors with rumors, but when they come with papers to allow you passage on your own streets, it’s a vaccination of its own kind. A drop of poison that might cure, once the tremors pass.
I walk alone, since we’re still allowed to do that. See the Starlight Lounge boarded up. Some baleful soul has painted THE END IS NIGH on the plywood outside. See the lights turned off at Eli’s Mile High, at the MLK cafe, at the Stay Gold Deli. My neighborhood at the best of times is one most people only see through the windows of their cars. Half of us live in tents under the freeway, and a bunch more in converted industrial spaces. There are miles of pitted roads that make up good territory for parking at night. The streetlights are out and town peters out toward the docks. It’s dogtown, but not even the dogs have the run of the place. I end up at the parklet behind McClymonds High School: empty, but the bells still sound at the hour. We have a swingset and a little expanse of grass where people dump paint cans and dead TVs. The chains are rusty, but they hold. I swing and the movement gives the neighborhood the illusion of life.
In the third week, life in my house has taken on a bizarre rhythm, like those dead skinned frog’s legs sprinkled with salt to make them twitch. All of us working from home means constant video calls with our headphones on. We work around one another in the kitchen, we apologize for using all the hot water. We extend greater patience and compassion than we have in years, because there’s no blowing off steam anywhere else. I lay on the couch and moan that I want a bar, I want some different lights. I want to stare at a stranger and tolerate a stranger staring at me. I want chit chat in line for coffee and the rolled eyes of people at the post office with packages balanced against their hip. I want more than this small commune can give me, more than I can get in my driveway. But it isn’t safe, and I wouldn’t if I could. I read about an ill-advised secret party that was busted in San Francisco before it could take place. I’ve never been the kind one to root for the cops, or to be pleased that a constitutionally protected gathering was broken up. What I want is for the world to make sense again, to know who is trustworthy beyond the mutual aid of my own block. What people want most can’t be had. The price is too high.
I stand at the end of my driveway in the rain, looking down end to end. A roadmap of West Oakland is more a spiderweb than a grid. The grand avenues of San Pablo and Adeline slice along either side of my block, and I could walk down the middle of either one at noon and not worry about traffic at all. At night, I hear people pulling donuts in the five-way intersections.
A little boy who lives down by the Baptist church where I cast my votes rode down the block to me the other day on his bike. He stopped right in front of me, closer than the order allows. Closer than four feet. He looked up at me as only children do, not their inventory of body and person, looking me straight in the eye because he hasn’t learned to be embarrassed yet
It was as shockingly intimate as if he had reached out and taken my hand.
“Hi,” he said.
I waved at him and saw as he took off that one of our succulents had a spectacular bloom on it. Got close to get a better look and saw it was a pink bubblegum wrapper deposited by the wind.
I picked it off and saw that spring is advancing, nonetheless. It just might not look the way we expected it to.
Meg Elison is a San Francisco Bay Area author. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award and was a Tiptree longlist mention that same year. It was reissued in 2016 and was on the Best of the Year lists from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, PBS, and more. Her second novel was also a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. Elison was the spring 2019 Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University, and is a coproducer of the monthly reading series Cliterary Salon.
Check out Meg’s latest book: Big Girl